press release

The UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is pleased to announce a major new survey of paintings by Sylvia Fein, a leading figure in the Midwest Surrealist movement that emerged in in the mid-20th century as an American response to European Surrealism. Sylvia Fein / MATRIX 275 marks the first solo museum exhibition in more than a decade for the artist, who will observe her 100th birthday shortly after the exhibition opens. The exhibition is the latest installment BAMPFA’s MATRIX Program, a series that highlights distinctive and important voices in contemporary art.

Sylvia Fein / MATRIX 275 features nearly three dozen paintings made over a 70-year period by Fein, who is based in Martinez, California. Born in Milwaukee, Fein studied painting at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and became closely associated with the community of Midwest Surrealists that emerged during the 1930s and ’40s. Fein’s paintings are noted for her use of egg tempera, a centuries-old practice that endows her imagery with a distinctively luminous quality. Like other Surrealists, Fein often employs strange or dreamlike imagery in her work, frequently repeating certain motifs, such as disembodied eyes or catlike visages emerging from colorful abstract backgrounds.

Fein first rose to national prominence in the late 1940s, when she exhibited in the Whitney Annual along with Jackson Pollock, Roberto Matta, and others. Over the course of a long and celebrated career, her work has been exhibited alongside that of other notable Surrealists, including Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo. Fein continues to paint frequently and is also an active farmer, cultivating an extensive orchard of olive trees at her home in Martinez.

The 35 paintings chosen for Fein’s MATRIX exhibition represent the full spectrum of the artist’s varied creative output, from figurative landscape paintings to surreal images of eyes, trees, and the cosmos. The exhibition includes works as early as a fantastical 1946 landscape made in Mexico, and as recent as a painting from 2012 that depicts four towering infernos against a vivid green-and-black background. Fein is expected to attend the exhibition opening and deliver an artist’s talk on Wednesday, November 13, at noon; the artist’s talk is free with museum admission.

“We’re delighted to celebrate Sylvia’s remarkable body of work—and her 100th birthday—with an exhibition that will reacquaint Bay Area audiences with her unique contributions to the American Surrealist canon,” said BAMPFA Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder, who curated the exhibition. “Together with BAMPFA’s other surreal exhibition this season, Strange—which prominently features one of Sylvia’s fascinating eye paintings—Sylvia’s MATRIX presentation reminds us of Surrealism’s power to suggest new and evocative ways of seeing the world around us.”

About Sylvia Fein
Sylvia Fein (b. 1919) is a painter and author based in Martinez, California. Fein was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and from 1938 to 1942 she studied art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While there she became friends with fellow artists Marshall Glasier, John Wilde, Dudley Huppler, and Karl Priebe. In 1942 she married William Scheuber and briefly had a factory job in Milwaukee testing switches for naval planes. From 1944 to 1947 Fein lived and traveled throughout Mexico. Much of the work produced during this period was included in a solo exhibition of her paintings at the Perls Galleries in 1946. She and her husband then moved to northern California and had a daughter, Heidi. During the 1950s and 1960s, Fein continued to paint in her home studio.

In 1973 Fein decided to take a break from painting and published two books, Heidi's Horse(1976) and First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking (1993). These works were greatly inspired by her friendship with art educator and researcher, Henry Shaefer-Simmern. In 2003 she resumed painting. She was featured in the group show, With Friends: Six Magic Realists, 1940-1965 at the University of Wisconsin in 2005 and in a solo retrospective at the Bakersfield Art Museum in 2007. From 1970 to 2000 Fein was also active in the community of Pleasant Hill, California, as a member of several public services commissions.

Sylvia Fein / MATRIX 275 is organized by Lawrence Rinder, director and chief curator, with Lucia Momoh, curatorial assistant. The MATRIX Program is made possible by a generous endowment gift from Phyllis C. Wattis and the continued support of the BAMPFA Trustees.